Like many others (if social media is any indication), I have been following the debate on the federal government’s recently-(re)introduced Bill C-30. If you don’t know it by number, the government has helpfully entitled the bill “The Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act” (just in case you’re wondering whether you should stand with the government or with the child pornographers on this issue). Debate over this bill has been loud and acrimonious and I do not intend to recapitulate it here. Nor is it my intention to weigh in on the relative merits of the bill. Rather, I want to briefly discuss a few things that have struck me since the debate began.
The first thing that I find interesting is that most commentary regarding the bill focuses on only one section (the coverage on privacy expert Michael Geist’s website – michaelgeist.ca – is an exception). This, despite that fact that the bill is not all that long. A lot of the commentary has focused on Section 17, which outlines the circumstances under which “any police officer” can ask an ISP (Internet service provider) to turn over customer information without a warrant. This CBC story summarizes the issues here (and highlights Public Safety Minister Vic Toews’ lack of knowledge of the bill). However, other sections have been the subject of commentary as well, including Section 23 (characterized as a “hidden gag order” in this blog post by Canadian privacy lawyer David Fraser) and Section 34 (which CBC’s Terry Milewski says will give “Orwellian” powers to shadowy government “inspectors”). The latter story is most interesting: it raises the spectre of Big Brother and the Thought Police and lays out how the bill will allow the government to access and copy any information on any ISP network. That really does sound Orwellian. So why has so little of the commentary on the bill focused on this section? Now, I did not do an exhaustive review of all the commentary; my point is that one would think, based on the content and the tone of Milewski’s article, that this would be a major focus of criticism of the bill. But it hasn’t been. Could it be that this is just Milewski’s interpretation and that others might have a different one? That is quite a different thing than the unequivocal bill-gives-the-government-access-to-everything message of the article.
The second observation has to do with the sheer volume (in both senses of the word) and tenor of the reaction to the bill. While I was researching and writing this post, Andrew Coyne helpfully wrote this piece in the National Post, in which he asks why the current bill has triggered such a visceral reaction when similar legislation introduced in the past (Coyne points to a bill introduced by the Paul Martin Liberals in 2005) caused not much more than a whimper by comparison. Coyne points to a number of possible factors, but fingers “the general climate of hysteria in which politics is conducted these days” and “the arrival of the online community as a political force” as the main culprits. (I should note that pollster Frank Graves pointed out via Twitter (@VoiceOfFranky), in response to the Coyne article, that public opinion has been moving away from a desire for public safety, no matter what the privacy cost,
@acoyne Oct 2001 65% agree police should have more power even if privacy compromised: 2010 number has plummeted in straight line to 32%”
…which would explain at least some of the hysteria over the bill.) But I basically agree with Coyne. I think social media (especially Twitter) tends to concentrate and amplify anger. People have only 140 characters to explain why they’re mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore. Add to that the bravery that comes from anonymity and a distrust of the “lamestream” media and you have the recipe for a potent stew, indeed.
The third observation is the opposition reaction to the bill. Liberal public safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia asked Minister Toews in the House of Commons how Canadians could trust that the government wouldn’t use the private information they obtained to intimidate citizens (the question that led to the infamous “He can either stand with us or with the child pornographers” line from the Minister). I wonder if Mr. Scarpaleggia asked the same question of his own party’s similar 2005 proposed legislation? How can Liberal criticism of C-30 be taken seriously when they were prepared to do the same thing (if not in a more extreme form) when they formed the government.
This is not to let the government off the hook. Stockwell Day, during his tenure as Public Safety Minister from 2006 to 2008, assured Canadians that the government would not introduce the very type of legislation we are now debating. It’s getting to the point where it seems impossible for a politician to avoid an accusation of hypocrisy no matter who he/she is or what he/she says. I am increasingly convinced that the only thing we can say with assurance about any politician these days is that he/she is worse than the others.
The final observation concerns the public airing of Minister Toews dirty laundry (his 2008 divorce). To me, this issue is this: what are acceptable forms of protest? The Ottawa Citizen’s Dan Gardner tackled this issue in the context of Bill C-30 in this column. In it, he notes:
“Said person or persons [Twitter user @Vikileaks30] found Vic Toews’ divorce records and broadcast them, verbatim, on Twitter. This was simply wrong. Not illegal. But wrong.
It was not, as many claimed, a legitimate protest against Toews’ Bill C-30, which would create a system of warrantless Internet surveillance. Protesting an invasion of privacy by invading privacy is like protesting violence in the NHL by beating up Gary Bettman. It’s wrong. And stupid.
And it was indeed an invasion of privacy. Toews’ divorce records may be public documents in the sense that a determined person can lawfully find them and read them but there’s a vast amount of private and potentially humiliating information available in public documents, as every private detective and opposition researcher knows. Imagine your divorce records – or statements of claim, or bankruptcy records, or mortgage records, or property registrations – being passed around the Internet like a YouTube video. And tell me your privacy hasn’t been violated.”
And if you think that is an acceptable act, what of the threats by the “Anonymous” hacker group to release “private” information about Minister Toews unless Bill C-30 is withdrawn? Gardner had this to say:
“Threatening to release humiliating information if the government doesn’t withdraw C-30 is not activism. It is not sticking it to The Man. It is not an homage to V For Vendetta.
It is the crime of extortion. And a particularly severe instance of it.
Remember the election? People voted. The Conservatives won, like it or not. They formed a legitimate government with a democratic mandate to govern, like it or not.
Maybe you think the Conservatives are governing badly. (I do.) Maybe you think C-30 is a horrible bill. (Me, too.) Doesn’t matter. The government remains legitimate and democratically mandated: When people use a tactic like extortion to force the government to change course they are subverting democracy.
And to do that while posing as defenders of freedom against tyranny? Nauseating.”
Andrew Coyne, in the piece referenced earlier, had this to say about the @Vikileaks30 leaks of Minister Toews divorce details:
“The relevance of such information to the issue at hand, the fairness of publishing it without offering the minister the chance to respond, the morality of attacking another person’s reputation without putting your own name on the line — all these were dismissed as distractions, the concerns expressed by working journalists, who deal with these questions for a living, waved away as no more than the dismay of the “gatekeepers” at the loss of their traditional role.”
So, what is acceptable? I knew a person once who never lost an argument. It wasn’t because of the logic of their positions or of the defence of those positions. The reason they never lost was because they were willing to keep escalating the argument until the other person capitulated. When you know someone will stop at nothing to win, not personal attacks, not even violence, you quickly learn that it is simply not worth it to argue. I feel the social media community is a bit like that. Their sheer numbers, in addition to the reinforcement of their baser impulses through exposure to what Coyne called “the armies of the like-minded that are the hallmarks of social media” and their anonymity contribute to a vicious circle that escalates anger (and then protest) beyond any reasonable form. And this phenomenon is only going to grow. It is not the time for reasonable men or women. Reason doesn’t cut it anymore. Cynicism reigns (and note that I recognize that I am not immune to cynicism!) and with it a kind of formless anger waiting to coalesce on any issue. It reminds me of what I have said in the past about rap music: after a while you just get tired of angry people shouting at you. In my darker moments I look at the online community like that – as a group of continuously angry people just waiting to attack something.
What do you think? Comments, as always, are welcome!